Powelton Village: Residents Pinpoint Zoning As Critical Issue

In a nearly 150-year-old church, Powelton Village Civic Association (PVCA) members discussed efforts to encourage developers to abide by the neighborhood’s conservation overlay (NCO) district status. This status establishes guidelines for development in the area generally between Spring Garden Street and Lancaster Avenue.

“We’ll continue to focus on zoning as a group,” said John Phillips, the president of PVCA during its monthly meeting on Feb. 18 at the Metropolitan Baptist Church on Baring and 35th streets.

In the past, the community organization has met with developers about proposals that don’t match the city’s zoning code. The NCO district is meant to work for neighborhoods by providing “a reasonable degree of control over the alteration and improvement of the exterior facades of existing buildings and the design of new construction,” according to commission documents.

Discussion about PVCA’s response to neighborhood complaints took up the majority of the two-and-a-half hour meeting. Besides zoning, the nearly 40 attendees also discussed noise pollution from the nearby Penn Presbyterian Medical Center.

After being introduced as “exhausted and overworked” by Phillips, Mike Jones, the co-chair of the PVCA’s zoning task force, presented about five proposed projects that could infringe on Powelton Village’s neighborhood conservation overlay. The city-deemed classification recognizes the historical significance of the area’s architecture and limits new construction. For example, the NCO requires all newly built, residentially zoned structures to be equal to or less than 35 feet tall.

Several of the development proposals Jones mentioned were linked to Drexel University and Penn Presbyterian. For instance, 3700 Lancaster Avenue — which is advertised for students and young professionals in University City — is not properly zoned to house multiple apartments, as its developer’s website proposes, Jones said.

Attendees raised their hands to mention developments on other residential properties they believed could be prohibited by city regulations, and Jones added them to his list of properties to look into. Later in the meeting, as drawings of potential new structures in the neighborhood were shown via projector, other members showed their distaste by sticking their tongues out or shaking their heads.

To assist with the workload of facing developers, PVCA board members unanimously approved a motion to allocate up to $10,000 for legal fees for disputes with developers that are potentially circumventing zoning laws.

Larry Biond, a PVCA board member, said the organization needs to advertise the neighborhood’s NCO so developers are aware when scouting the neighborhood. It could deter some from proposing projects, he said.

“Except for fighting developers that would both affect the quality of life and the historic character, everything is fine,” said Biond, who has lived in Powelton Village since 1960. “We’re safer than Center City, we’ve got a great neighborhood, lovely homes, good neighbors.

“But you see those boxes that they put up,” he said, referring to the recent architecture style in the city.  

Zoning has long been a contentious topic in the neighborhood, and developer Brandywine Realty Trust has already broke ground on Schuylkill Yards, a $3.5 billion project that aims to transform 14 acres in University City into “the nation’s next great urban innovation community,” per its description on Drexel’s website.

The organization is also familiar with settling community issues in court. In 2015, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania decided in PVCA’s favor that a “family” household is strictly defined as people who are related to each other by blood or marriage living with one another. Developers appealed the decision, in hopes of expanding the number of unrelated people allowed to reside in their properties, but were denied.

After the meeting, Chuck Bode, co-founder of the West Powelton/Saunders Park RCO, said it’s an uphill battle to face the city and developers when it comes to zoning. He also noted the need for more reporting on these issues.

The neighborhood has a small newsletter called the Powelton Post, led by resident Diane Pringle. Phillips said that while the newsletter is important and the neighborhood is covered by the Philadelphia Inquirer, more media attention could be paid to the neighborhood.

Besides development springing up around the neighborhood, Penn Presbyterian has disrupted residents with late-night helicopter flights which wake people up at night, said PVCA board member Virginia Maksymocwicz. The flights wake people up at night, and Maksymocwicz said she has met with representatives from the medical center, including its CEO Michele Volpe, to discuss the issue.

Maksymocwicz said the hospital has failed to share information its representatives promised at prior meetings, like how many late-night fuel runs the hospital has conducted. PVCA also learned that the hospital did not conduct any environmental noise studies before constructing the helipad in 2015. Pennsylvania does not require developers to conduct environmental noise pollution studies, as some other states do.

The Environmental Protection Agency delegates noise regulation to the states but recommends that noise in outdoor areas remains below 55 decibels. With no study, the hospital wasn’t able to tell Maksymowicz if its helicopter was causing noise disruption higher than that level.

“As a result of our discussions, they have implemented some sound mitigation,” Maksymowicz said. “One, they’ve been varying both the landing and take-off flight paths. When that teleport first opened, every flight came over Mantua and Powelton. Every flight left over us. So there is variation.”

Maksymowicz said she and other members will continue to push for more detailed information on the hospital’s efforts to respond to community concerns.

Other speakers at the meeting were guests from various organizations who wanted to educate community residents about available resources. Tamara Callanan, the student body president at Drexel University, encouraged the PVCA to take part in a lightbulb distribution program that aims to illuminate porches across the neighborhood. Jeffrey Jordan, an outreach coordinator at Drexel, introduced himself to the group as West Philadelphia’s liaison for Promise Neighborhoods initiative, which is funded by the United States Department of Education.

Jordan said the three-year program bolsters schools and “cradle-to-career” opportunities for children to improve health and economic outcomes in the neighborhood.

The PVCA will focus on zoning again at its next meeting on March 18 from 7:30 to 9 p.m. in the Metropolitan Baptist Church, as developers will attend to discuss their projects with the community organization.

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